Sarah Bernhardt

Known as the First Lady of the Theatre, Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet on stage in 1899, and she was also the first Hamlet on film in 1900. Bernhardt’s approach to the character was passionate, she responded to critics:

These are not the words of a weak or languid person. When the ghost wants to take him aside, he draws his sword against his friends and threatens to kill them if they will not let him pass. That does not bespeak a feeble man….. In the Oratory scene I am reproached with going too near the King; but if Hamlet wishes to kill the King surely he must be close to him. And when he hears him pray words of repentance, he thinks that if he kills him, he will send him to Heaven; and he does not kill the King, not because he is vacillating and weak, but because he is firm and logical…. Hamlet thinks before he acts, which is the sign of great strength and great power of mind….. He kills the King while in the blackest and most mortal sin; but he kills him only when he is absolutely sure….. He calmly sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death. All this bespeaks a young, strong, and determined character. (Shudofsky 295)

While Bernhardt’s portrayal was received enthusiastically in France where it originally premiered, it garnered mixed reviews when it moved to London in the summer of 1899. Critics called her boyish and said that her performance was “excessive bustle and frivolous energy” (Shudofsky 294).

Le Duel d’Hamlet was produced for the Paris Exhibition of 1900 with Bernhardt as Hamlet and Pierre Magnier as Laertes. The two minute film is reputed as the first to be screened with a synchronized soundtrack. In addition to being the first portrayal of Hamlet on film, this was also Bernhardt’s first film role. The film was originally screened at the Phono-Cinema-Theatre in Paris, and was distributed in France after 1907 by Urban Eclipse. It was released in America by Kleine Optical Company in 1908.

*Photo: Tess Primack as Quarto 1 in Bad Hamlet. Carnegie Mellon University, Oct. 30, 2010; credit: Tom Strong
Shudofsky, M. Maurice. “Sarah Bernhardt on Hamlet.” College English 3.3 (1941): 293-95. JSTOR.

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